Thursday, October 11, 2007

The informational website as PR tool

There was a time, a few years ago when it was harder to find information on the Internet and companies were even less comfortable with sharing their knowledge over an open network, when launching a special website could convince some publics that your company really cared about someone you wanted them to think you really cared about. That's not quite as true today.

I cover the real estate finance industry, so I was there when the National Home Equity Lending Association (NHEMA), a trade group made up of subprime lenders who some consumer advocates accused of predatory lending, launched its Borrowsmart website, a tool to help homebuyers with less than perfect credit avoid spending too much on a subprime loan. Be careful about buying our products, they warned. Judging from the current subprime lending crisis, we can assume it didn't work so well.

Recently, the American Land Title Association (ALTA), the trade organization for title insurance agents, launched a site that, in part, is designed to help people avoid spending too much on title insurance. Hmmm. I wrote about that on another blog.

Both subprime lenders and title insurance agents were working to change negative consumer attitudes about their line of business. They were really just taking a page out of big tobacco's play book. Spend 1% on ads telling people not to use your products and they'll forgive you for spending 99% to promote something you know will kill them.

But this isn't intended to be an indictment of bad public relations efforts, or of informational websites, for that matter. I'm just telling you that if you hope to change a negative public opinion by putting information online be aware of how your efforts, no matter how well meant, will appear to others. Save the Internet real estate for stories about how you help other folks, not for information about how they can help themselves by avoiding what you're selling.

It's probably better to think of it like this: when you come upon your friend (someone you really care about) sinking in quicksand, prattling on about the many ways he might save himself is largely a waste of time. Your real options are to throw him a rope or a branch or something and save him, or not.
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